Monday, September 13, 2010

Day Seventy-Three: Rashomon

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #89
Year: 1950
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo

Hello all, and welcome to a very special week of Twohundredfifty. Until about two hours ago, I had never seen a single frame from an Akira Kurosawa movie. I've known for years that he's considered one of the greatest directors of all time and is paralleled only by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman in terms of classic world cinema. I've just never been compelled to watch his movies. For this list, I knew I had the daunting task of watching and writing about five of his films – Rashomon, Ran, Ikiru, Yojimbo and Seven Samurai – so I decided to knock them all out in one stretch. That brings us to today, the first day of Kurosawa Week. My first film of his was 1950's Rashomon, and I was very impressed. I sensed a strong similarity to the Ingmar Bergman films I've seen, and while I'm not educated enough about either director's career to say for sure, I imagine that there was influence flowing in both directions between Sweden and Japan during those days.

Rashomon focuses on the murder of a samurai and rape of his wife by an infamous bandit. Four versions of the story are told and shown in flashback – the bandit arrested at the scene, the wife of the murdered samurai, the murdered samurai himself speaking through a medium, and a simple woodcutter who claims to have seen the whole ordeal. As one would expect, the stories vary greatly, and each character tries to make themselves sound as honorable as possible given the dishonorable circumstances of the entire situation. The bandit proudly confesses to raping the woman, but insists that he never meant to kill her husband and was forced to do so in combat. The woman says that the bandit left after raping her, and that she begged her husband to kill her. When he wouldn't, she fainted, and when she awoke, she found him with her dagger in his chest. The ghost of the murdered man claims that his wife gave herself to the bandit without resistance, then volunteered to leave with him. The bandit reacted honorably, asking the samurai if he let his wife live or not. The samurai pardons him and kills himself with a dagger. Finally, a woodcutter who has been listening to all of these stories claims that all of the previous speakers were liars and proceeds to tell the story as he saw it. In his version, the bandit begs the woman to marry him. She frees her husband, then calls both men cowards for not acting honorably. They reluctantly fight each other, and the bandit wins by a stroke of luck. When he returns to the woman, she runs away. The bandit takes the samurai's sword and leaves. It is popularly believed that we are to believe the woodcutter's story, as he had no vested interest in making himself appear more honorable by its telling.

All of that makes a wonderful nucleus for any film, and indeed, could have been the entire movie on its own. But Kurosawa takes it farther, and lets the lies and self-interest of the storytellers rattle the priest who serves as the film's narrator. The last ten minutes are a moving sequence of a faithless priest shaken by what he's heard and seen who finds a baby, fears the world it is about to enter, then has his faith restored by the woodcutter who volunteers to take care of it. The stories about the rape and murder take up the bulk of the film's running time, but those ten minutes take up the bulk of its meaning. My first impression of the films of Akira Kurosawa was a strongly positive one, and I can't wait to dive into the next four.

The Good: The final scenes are integral to the film's purpose rather than tacked on as a postscript to the testimonies, and they work unbelievably well.

The Bad: I don't know if this is a cultural thing, but every single laugh in this movie is totally fucking obnoxious. Everyone laughs in the most annoying way possible. And I love Amadeus. It didn't ruin the movie or anything, but I found myself constantly hoping characters wouldn't be amused again.

The Skinny: I'm a little nervous to say Rashomon deserves to be #89 because that's so high, but I have no doubts that it belongs on the list.

1 comment:

  1. The only laugh I remember was the wife's and she was going insane...
    Also, it's unfair to say the woodcutter's tale is true and that he had no motives. He stole that dagger and lied to cover up the fact that there was no dagger at the scene.
    You never actually know what happens because that's not the point.
    The point is that a woman had sex with someone who wasn't her husband and the husband was killed. The fact that everyone selfishly lies about it shows just how cruel the world really is.
    The movie changes from a crime investigation to a film that examines the human condition... in literally 10 minutes. It's a beautiful film. See all of Kurisowa's movies again after you finish this week. You will be surprised what you pick up on repeated viewings.